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Babes of Wrath

January 26, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Economy, Pat LaMarche

A Journey into the Deep-Seated Poverty of America

by Pat LaMarche

{Editor’s Note: NCV Contributor Pat LaMarche embarks on an epic journey, rekindling the spirit of Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family to explore issues of homelessness and poverty in the U.S. We’ll present Pat’s reflections from the road as she and her intrepid traveling companion continue on the journey…}

This week I started out on a 5000-mile journey through the inner city shelters, backwoods camps, and forgotten hideaways of our nation’s poorest people. I’ll meet babies, toddlers, school kids, drop outs, drug addicts, minimum wage earners, former home owners, veterans, the elderly and more. But I won’t do it alone. I’m traveling from Little Rock, Arkansas to Los Angeles and all the way back to Asheville, North Carolina with a hero friend of mine. This is my third trip traveling through the wealthiest nation and into the world of the homeless, and it’ll last a little more than a month. It’s my friend’s first trip, but she’s been on it for more than eight years.

Diane Nilan — founder and CEO of the youth homeless advocacy charity HEAR US — sold her condo, bought a little RV, and began traveling through and documentary filming the lives of our nation’s most destitute children and their families. Her videos and her book are available at her website, and all the proceeds from the sales go to fund her outreach to homeless kids. This is the second time I’ve tagged along in her mobile office, and while the pace is grueling, the company is delightful. And I don’t just mean Diane’s company — although her housekeeping and advocacy skills make her a cross between Betty Crocker and Harriet Tubman — no, I also mean the homeless liaisons, housing directors, caseworkers, and homeless individuals as well.

Wednesday, our first official day on the road, was no exception. We kicked off this tour — which we have modeled after John Steinbeck’s epic journeying Joad family and appropriately named the “Babes of Wrath” tour — in Fort Smith, Arkansas. This onetime frontier town has harbored hanging judges, a dozen or more bordellos, and was a gateway to the Oklahoma Territory through which the “Trail of Tears” passed. Almost everything about the town is ignoble, and it’s homeless camps — reminiscent of the 20th century depression era Hoovervilles — are ripe with suffering.

In the city center, a well-oiled coalition of government advocates, churches, and civic groups has come together to tackle the area’s homelessness problem. Together these organizations have planned to build a one stop shop for the needs of their clients. There’s an old furniture factory they want to buy. It’s so massive it’s more than they can use right now, but not more than they need. These folks, the Fort Smith Homeless Coalition, seem to live by the motto, “Go Big or Go Home.” But seeing as the people they care about don’t have a home, they’re just going to have to “Go Big.” And when they’ve raised about $3 million dollars they’ll have a facility that’ll be an example to the rest of the nation. But for now, they’ve just got a coalition that’s an example to the rest of us.

We toured what Fort Smith has got now — day shelters, food pantries, transitional facilities, emergency shelters, clothing swaps, and more — and then we went to see the factory where they’ll build their “Riverview Hope Campus” and shared the dream of putting it all under one roof for just a few minutes. To Diane and I — who don’t know everything, but who’ve seen a lot — it sure looked like a dream that needs to come true.

Photo: From Pat & Diane's journeys...But we had one more stop to make before we headed into the town library to meet with agency providers and share conversation and camaraderie with their member partners after their day jobs had ended. We traveled over to the banks of the Arkansas River and walked into the wooded area which shelters the residents of the area’s north camp. The images from there tell a story that is repeated all across this country. These aren’t pictures of a waste dump. These are pictures of the way Americans live. Tents, clotheslines, bicycles, cook stoves, toys, and the animals that guard them. About 35 people live in the north camp. More lived in another location known as the south camp, but not long ago someone burned that camp down.

We’ll soon get back on the road. We’ll travel into Oklahoma, and like the Joads continue on to Texas. More information on our trip is available at Diane’s website. You can check out the map, and if you’re so inclined you can come back here for updates every few days or so on our trip. You can also follow along with more frequent updates at our Facebook page, where additional pictures from the journey will be posted. And please, if you’re located somewhere along our route, give us a shout — we’d love to meet with you or share what we know with you, your local university, or other community group. And if you have a unique approach to poverty that you’d like to share, we’re all ears. Please feel free to write me at: PatLaMarche(at)hotmail(dot)com.

Pat LaMarche is the Vice President of Community Affairs at Safe Harbour, Inc. In 2004, she was the U.S. Vice Presidential nominee for the Green Party. During the campaign, she traveled the nation living in homeless shelters and on the streets; the book she wrote about those experiences is Left Out in America: The State of Homelessness in the United States (Upala Press, 2006). LaMarche writes a regular political column for The Bangor Daily News and contributes to the Huffington Post; hosts The Pulse Morning Show that broadcasts from Maine; and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

1 Comments to “Babes of Wrath”


  1. Thanks for the vote of confidence. We will make this campus a reality and restore some dignity to its residents. So glad to have met you both, be safe on your travels.

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